Indefatigable conductor John Sinclair has become one of the best-known — and hardest-working — leaders of Central Florida’s cultural community.
John V. Sinclair was readying himself to conduct yet another Candlelight Processional at Epcot when he was approached by a soft-spoken senior citizen who was instantly recognizable even though a bald pate now gleamed where a frizzy forest of blond hair had once sprouted.
Art Garfunkel was among more than a dozen celebrity narrators who would read the biblical story of Christ’s birth during Disney’s annual holiday spectacular, which features a 50-piece orchestra and a 400-voice choir.
“You’re the conductor who does Bach,” said Garfunkel, who with Paul Simon recorded some of the most enduring pop songs of the 20th century. “I love his B Minor Mass.”
Sinclair, whose reputation as an interpreter of Bach is international, was nonetheless a bit surprised that the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer knew who he was. But he was even more intrigued to learn that Garfunkel loved the German master’s work.
“Hey,” said Garfunkel with a shrug. “We all have to grow up sometime.”
Sinclair, 60, chair of the Department of Music at Rollins College and artistic director of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, could relate. “I guess the older I get, the more classical music speaks to me,” he says.
Classical music speaks to thousands of others through Sinclair, a fifth-generation teacher whose gray-bearded visage has become arguably the most recognizable in Central Florida’s cultural community. He routinely conducts about 150 performances a year, in addition to his work as a teacher and a department head.
Sinclair also serves as music director of the First Congregational Church of Winter Park; director of the local Messiah Choral Society; and conductor of the International Moravian Music Festivals. His seemingly boundless energy both delights and confounds his admirers, who wonder how long he can maintain such a crushing schedule of classes, concerts and clinics.
“Whenever I see a handful of people singing or playing instruments, and it doesn’t matter where, I’m surprised when I don’t also see John there with his baton,” says one longtime member of the Bach Festival Choir with a chuckle. “Any one of the things he does would be a full-time job for most people.”
Sinclair is equally adept at directing choirs and orchestras, and can do so simultaneously without favoring one at the expense of the other. Each task requires a particular set of skills, and leading a combined performance requires a synthesis of superb musicianship and split-second timing.
However, the man the Orlando Sentinel once dubbed “Central Florida’s resident conductor” shrugs off the suggestion that what he does is in any way exceptional. Although his music might be described as highbrow, Sinclair is an unpretentious Midwesterner with working-class roots. His students and colleagues address him simply as “Doc.”
“I just do my job,” says Sinclair. “I show up and try really hard. I take my work very seriously, but I try to not take myself very seriously. I also consider myself hugely fortunate to make music for a living. I guess you could say I lead a remarkable, unremarkable life.”
Sinclair was born in Kansas City, Mo., but as a child lived in Camden, a small farming community of several hundred people about 40 miles east.
His father, Dee, worked for General Motors — in what capacity, exactly, Sinclair has no idea — and his mother, Marilyn, was an elementary-school music teacher. She taught her son to play the piano and nudged him toward classical, although he preferred rock and ragtime.
Marilyn’s people were Jacksons, directly descended from Old Hickory and proud of their lineage. Buck and Agnes Jackson, Sinclair’s maternal grandparents, operated the Jackson General Store, a Camden institution that offered everything from groceries to hardware to sporting goods. Jesse James, it was said, had shopped there, actually paying for his purchases.
“The place opened in 1840,” says Sinclair, who displays the store’s bulky cash register in his cluttered office along with assorted busts of composers (some wearing whimsical hats), his first baseball glove, an array of awards and thousands of books, CDs and musical scores packed in floor-to-ceiling shelves.
“I hung out at the store every day,” he adds, recalling the long wooden counters and glass candy cases. There was even a pot-bellied stove at the rear, around which regulars gathered and whiled away blustery winter days. “I had chores to perform. It’s an important part of who I am, and I’m proud of the work ethic I think it instilled.”
The family moved to Independence — famous as the home of Harry Truman — when Sinclair was 11. There he attended Chrisman High School, where he played trumpet in the band — he was a fan of horn-heavy rock groups such as Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears — and was active in sports, especially baseball and basketball.
At band practice, he recalls, the youthful musicians would sometimes spy Truman taking one of his legendary unescorted afternoon strolls, prompting hurried but heartfelt renditions of “Hail to the Chief.”
Sinclair’s Show-Me State sensibilities were strengthened at William Jewell College, a Baptist-affiliated liberal-arts institution in Liberty, Mo., where he earned an undergraduate degree in music.
Then it was off to the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance, where he earned master’s and doctoral degrees in music education, with an emphasis on conducting.
After graduation, Sinclair worked as a middle-school choral director in Belton, a suburb of Kansas City, in part to be near his high-school girlfriend, Gail Duvé, who was completing her English degree. The couple married in 1977, and both got jobs teaching high school in Sedalia, Mo.
Gail, who holds a doctorate in American literature from the University of South Florida, is herself a force in the region’s intellectual life. She’s executive director of the Winter Park Institute, a Rollins-affiliated not-for-profit program that brings an array of internationally known thought leaders to campus. She’s also a noted scholar on the works of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Her husband’s prodigious work ethic isn’t something he developed late in life, Gail says. “My first date with John was a blind date,” she recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘This guy is going to go places, and I want to go, too.’”
The first place they went was Marshall, Texas, a funky mid-sized city that proclaims itself “the birthplace of boogie-woogie.” John became director of choirs at East Texas Baptist University and Gail taught high-school English.
When the department chair position at Rollins became available in 1985, it was a trio of quintessential Winter Park characters — Rollins President Thaddeus Seymour, former Rollins President Hugh McKean and businessman John Tiedtke — who got the couple to Winter Park, and ultimately kept them here.
“I interviewed with Thad Seymour,” recalls Sinclair. “I was so impressed that the college president would bother to meet with a lowly assistant professor. He said to me, ‘John, Rollins is the sort of place where one person can make a difference. I think that person is you.’”
At 6-feet-6, the charismatic Seymour, now president emeritus, cut an imposing figure and made a persuasive case. But what truly attracted Sinclair was the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, an organization technically unaffiliated with the college, but which he expected to head as artistic director and conductor.
“Definitely, the Bach Festival is what really interested me,” Sinclair says. “It was promised — at least it was implied — as part of the job.”
The society’s longtime artistic director, Ward Woodbury, had just stepped down after suffering a stroke. Woodbury, a Rollins music professor, had been replaced by Murray Somerville, who concurrently served as choirmaster at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Orlando.
The society’s artistic director had always been a Rollins faculty member. Therefore, it was assumed that Somerville’s tenure would be temporary. Somerville, however, assumed otherwise.
ALL ABOUT BACH
The Bach Festival Society, founded in 1935, sprang from a Vespers service presented that year on the Rollins campus at Knowles Memorial Chapel. The event was organized by Christopher Honaas, dean of the college’s whimsically named Division of Expressive Arts.
At the urging of then-President Hamilton Holt, a committee of professors and community leaders formed a Bach Festival Committee in 1937 “to present to the public for its enlightenment, education, pleasure and enjoyment musical presentations, both orchestral and choral.” The Bach Festival Society was incorporated in 1940.
By the time Sinclair arrived, the society and its annual festival had for decades been the personal domain of Tiedtke, a shrewd businessman who had made his fortune growing sugar, citrus and corn in South Florida. McKean had asked his boyhood friend to take charge in 1950, when founding society President Isabelle Sprague-Smith died and the organization’s future seemed in doubt.
The no-nonsense Tiedtke proved a fortuitous choice. He loved music — he played a little piano, but mostly enjoyed listening ---— and was a consistent and generous donor to community-based arts organizations. At Rollins, he had been treasurer and chairman of the board of trustees.
McKean, an iconic Winter Park figure, had been an art professor at Rollins before his elevation to the presidency. He had also married Jeannette Genius, granddaughter of Charles Hosmer Morse, a benevolent industrialist who had helped shape modern Winter Park. Together, the McKeans had created the Morse Museum of American Art, which they stocked with salvaged and restored works by Louis Comfort Tiffany.
“Mr. Tiedtke and Dr. McKean understood that with great wealth comes responsibility,” says Sinclair, who still refers to both men using formal titles, even in casual conversation. “They would have lunch together every Saturday. They started inviting me to come along, and those lunches were hugely interesting.”
Sinclair, who says he sometimes felt “a little like a third wheel,” would listen in awe as the old friends discussed art, philosophy and the events of the day. They would even spar over who should pay the tab. After 40 years of lunches, McKean joked, he remembered only a handful of times when Tiedtke picked up the bill.
But when the subject of the society came up, it was clear that Tiedtke, the primary funder as well as the hands-on boss, called the shots. There would be a new artistic director only when Tiedtke decided that there ought to be.
“I just do my job. I show up and try really hard. I take my work very seriously, but I try to
not take myself very seriously. I also consider myself hugely fortunate to make music
for a living. I guess you could say I lead a remarkable, unremarkable life.”
After nearly five years passed with Somerville at the helm, Sinclair felt that an impasse had been reached. The Sinclairs had two children — Taylor, now 27, and Kaley, now 26 — and loved Rollins and their comfortable home in Maitland. Still, several high-profile institutions, including Penn State, were making overtures. And Sinclair was tempted to explore them.
The unflappable McKean, at Tiedtke’s request, persuaded Sinclair to stay put and counseled patience. Shortly thereafter, Somerville left for a position as organist and choirmaster at Harvard University’s Memorial Church, and Sinclair finally took up the baton. This year marks his 25th anniversary with the society
“Mr. Tiedtke knew I had strong opinions,” recalls Sinclair. “But he could be persuaded in some instances. Basically, he said, ‘You pick what you want to do and I get veto power.’”
Sinclair, perhaps making up for lost time, and with Tiedtke’s support, helped guide the society through its most productive period. Today, what started as a single Sunday performance has grown into a full-fledged festival with a 160-member choir, a permanent orchestra and a packed schedule of concerts, many of which feature internationally renowned guest soloists.
Festival-related activities are held virtually year-round, culminating with the main event in February. In addition, the choir has made four European tours and performed with the Bach Choir of London in Royal Albert Hall and in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.
Perhaps most important, the society’s financial future was secured by establishment of an endowment, which was initially bolstered by gifts from the Elizabeth Morse Genius Foundation and from Tiedtke himself, who continued to serve as president until 2003.
Tiedtke died the following year at 97, and to the end was cajoling Central Florida businesspeople to do their civic duty and give more to the arts. In fact, Sinclair’s continued presence in Winter Park can be counted among the plain-spoken philanthropist’s many legacies.
Just before Tiedtke’s death, Rollins established the John M. Tiedtke Endowed Chair of Music. For once, the man for whom the chair was named wasn’t asked to write a check.
Others contributed generously, including an anonymous $250,000 donation that was later revealed to have come from one Fred McFeely Rogers, Class of ’51, a music composition major who became TV’s Mister Rogers and befriended the Sinclairs during his frequent Winter Park visits.
Sinclair, of course, was appointed as the Tiedtke chair’s first recipient. “It was an honor to know these two brilliant and good men,” Sinclair says of Tiedke and McKean, who died in 1995. “They were great role models for me.”
Living up to the examples set by Tiedtke and Mc-Kean has been a continuing priority for Sinclair. Tiedkte believed that well-run, well-supported arts organizations were integral to any enlightened community, and McKean believed that any academician worth his salt was first and foremost a classroom teacher.
Susan Tucker, who sings in both the Bach Festival Choir and the First Congregational Church Choir, has admired Sinclair’s synthesis of organizational prowess, intellectual heft and personal empathy for more than 25 years.
“John is one of the most intellectual conductors I’ve ever known, as well as being a consummate teacher,” says Tucker. “One of the things I enjoy most is that he informs us about the composers and the works we’re presenting. That allows us to better perform each one. Plus, he’s compassionate and easy to talk to.”
Tucker and others say that Sinclair’s expressive, sometimes theatrical conducting style brings out the best in choirs and orchestras, professional and amateur, energizing both familiar masterworks and seldom-heard compositions that Sinclair has chosen to pluck from obscurity.
Eric Ravndal, society president since 2004, is a retired Episcopal priest and a Tiedtke cousin. Under his leadership, the organization has been revamped as a more traditionally structured not-for-profit, with a diverse board and a paid staff.
Although Ravndal’s collaborative management style is a departure for the society, he, like his legendary predecessor, recognizes that his indefatigable maestro brings more to the position of artistic director and conductor than an unerring ear for music.
“John is a natural educator,” says Ravndal. “I attend nearly every rehearsal. And I can tell you that the musicians never leave a rehearsal without having learned more about the music they’re performing. It’s an incredible gift.”
HITTING HIS STRIDE
Sinclair’s cluttered office at Rollins is the lair of a man ensconced and immersed. And he is running out of space to display the recognitions that continually come his way.
There was an Arthur Vining Davis Fellowship in 2000, presented annually by the Jacksonville-based foundation for achievements in teaching, academic research and community outreach.
There was the Hugh and Jeannette McKean Faculty Grant in 2005, which Sinclair used to record a CD of seldom-heard Moravian music performed by the Bach Festival Choir and Orchestra.
There was the William E. Barden Distinguished Teaching Award in 2012, which was the result of a vote by students at the Hamilton Holt School, the college’s evening program.
There was the Cornell Distinguished Service Award in 2013, the recipients of which are selected by a panel of deans and up to four past winners.
Sinclair has twice been named Outstanding Music Educator of the Year by United Arts of Central Florida. He founded both the Rollins Community School of Music and the Bach Festival’s Arts-in-Education program, FreshSTARTS.
A recognition that Sinclair appears to particularly cherish came in 2013, when William Jewell College saluted him and two other notable alumni at its annual Celebration of Achievement ceremony. The other honorees included a CEO and a federal district judge.
Not that Sinclair intends to rest on his laurels. Or to rest at all, for that matter.
His other gigs include conductor of the International Moravian Music Festivals, which at first blush appears puzzling. However, his affinity for the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Moravian Music Society was an outgrowth of a 1993 Bach Festival program he organized called “Music of the Moravians.”
As a historian, Sinclair knew that the Moravian Church considered performing music to be an act of worship, and it helped introduce Bach’s works to America in the mid-1700s. Since the Moravians hold their festival only once every two years, he figured he could squeeze in conducting chores without too much difficulty.
Perhaps Sinclair’s most high-profile engagement is as one of two conductors during Epcot’s multi-performance Candlelight Processional. Over the past 18 years he’s led more than 650 holiday performances at the attraction’s American Garden Theatre, where some attendees find him as entertaining to watch as the celebrity narrators.
Most Sundays, Sinclair is leading the choir at the First Congregational Church of Winter Park, a “temporary” job that has now lasted 28 years. Although they are not formally affiliated, the church founded Rollins in 1885, and the neighboring institutions have enjoyed close ties throughout the ensuing 130 years.
“Working with the church is a great opportunity for [Rollins] students,” says Sinclair, who seeds the choir with collegiate singers and supplements the omnipresent organ with various instrumental ensembles. “It’s like a medical school having a teaching hospital.”
One Sunday several years ago, when the senior minister was on sabbatical, Sinclair even delivered the sermon, albeit a highly ecumenical and self-deprecating one he titled “The Gospel According to the Not-So-Saintly John.”
But there’s another, less practical and more poignant reason that Sinclair retains an affinity for worship services. “My grandmother once told me something I’ve always remembered,” he recalls. “She said, ‘John, God gave you this talent. So you need to be somewhere using it on Sunday mornings.’”
Shawn Garvey, the church’s senior minister since 2013, is glad Sinclair heeded his grandmother’s admonition. “I can honestly say that one of the reasons I was excited about coming to Winter Park was the opportunity to work with John,” says Garvey, who previously pastored a church in New Jersey. “I knew of his reputation even up there.”
Garvey says Sinclair has proven to be more than a celebrity choir director that a 400-member church typically couldn’t afford. “He’s a dedicated and loving father, a giving man who shares his grace and talent,” adds Garvey. “I value the relationship.”
Sometimes it appears as though Sinclair, like the music he conducts, simply defies time. Although far more of his career is behind him than ahead of him, he seems to be hitting his stride now, at an age when most people are at least considering what they might do during retirement.
“No, no,” says Sinclair when asked if he might consider shedding some professional commitments in the foreseeable future. “I always said I wanted to have a 50-year career, so I’ve got at least 12 more years. Anyway, I’ll recognize when I start to slip. I’ll know when it’s time to stop.”
For now, Sinclair is actually adding to his workload by compiling a book on how to stage major choral works. “I’m using only works that I’ve done at least three times myself,” he says. “I want this book to be my gift to the profession.”
Though he has little spare time to speak of, Sinclair says he loves to putter in the yard and grow roses. “I’m not very good at it,” he admits. “But I think it’s a result of having come from a farming community. I’ve always got to have a garden.”
Sinclair’s culinary preferences aren’t quite as rarefied as his musical ones. When the family dines out, they can often be seen at such places as Bubbaloo’s Bodacious Bar-B-Que or PR’s Taco Palace, both well-loved hole-in-the-wall eateries in Winter Park.
And despite his erudite public persona, the John Sinclair his family and friends know retains a streak of unadulterated, misty-eyed Midwestern sentimentality, particularly where his mother and grandmother are concerned.
“My grandmother, whom I adored, baked and sent a very small angel-food cake to my daughter on her first birthday,” he recalls. “It arrived, but my grandmother had passed suddenly the day before. It’s been 26 years, but I’ve never had the heart to throw that cake away. It’s still in our freezer.”
Carmina Burana, composed by Carl Orff in the 1930s and based on a cache of medieval poetry, is an over-the-top showpiece whenever it’s performed. Its most famous movement, “O Fortuna,” has been used in countless film scores, usually to set the scene for some sort of catastrophe, and to incite crowds at such events as Wrestlemania XIV.
When it’s staged by the Bach Festival Choir and Orchestra and the Orlando Ballet, the 24-movement cantata offers a quasi-psychedelic experience, with soaring instrumental music, haunting songs delivered in dead languages and lithe dancers leaping and contorting as dry-ice smoke pours from the wings.
Last November, Carmina Burana was among the first ticketed events at the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. As a nearly full house settled in at the Walt Disney Theater, Sinclair strode into the orchestra pit, turned and politely acknowledged the applause.
Then he faced the musicians, paused and removed his long-tailed coat, as if he were preparing for a fistfight instead of a concert. The lights came down, the baton was raised and John Sinclair went to work.